On Why Buffy Remains both Wonderfully Subversive & Powerfully Feminist
It’s been fifteen years since the final episode of Joss Whedon’s supernatural drama television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” aired (on May 20, 2003, to be exact), and while (spoiler) the city of Sunnydale in which the series takes place may have disappeared into a hellish sinkhole upon its conclusion, the importance of the show and of its titular, empowered and iconic lead have only grown, and are to this day still ruminated on by academics and fans alike.
At its core, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is an examination of its teenage ensemble’s at-times painful and altogether angst-ridden journey into adulthood, and wisely utilizing the show’s supernatural themes as metaphor, Whedon and Co. adhere to and effectively explore for seven acclaimed seasons their simple mission statement of, “High school is hell” utilizing that narrative device.
From its March 1997 series opening voice narration of, “Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (hereafter “BTVS”) wasted no time in establishing the champion of its world. Far from such omnipotent heroines as Ms. Marvel or Diana Prince however, “BtVS”’s eponymous lead (as portrayed by actress Sarah Michelle Gellar) was at first presented as little more than a vapid former cheerleader from the Valley with an addiction to fashion, expelled from her previous high school and reluctantly relocated along with her freshly divorced mother to a city literally on the outskirts of reality.
And she was blonde.
Conspiring together these traits arguably mark the character of Buffy the victim in any other genre piece (the second act demise of Gellar’s similarly-tressed, beauty pageant-winning character of Helen Shivers in 1998’s I Know What You Did Last Summer would be a prime example). And while it’s true that the conceit of the ‘Final Girl’ had already been successfully established by Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter’s classic film Halloween (and was nurtured by dozens of others over the ensuing decades, from Adrienne King’s turn in the 1980 film Friday the 13th to Neve Campbell’s portrayal of tortured heroine Sidney Prescott in 1996’s Scream, to wit), Buffy Summers herself exists outside of the ‘Final Girl’ box.
The answer lies in Whedon’s subversion of pop culture norm. Whereas those previously mentioned slasher film’s protagonists were virginal and therefore ‘wholesome’, Buffy conversely embraces her evolving sexuality in all its intricacy as the series progresses (from that of a fractured young woman rejected upon losing her maidenhood in season two, to the exploration of her own complicated sexuality and the power dynamics inherent in season six). And while true that a certain tryst was not without profound effect (Angel reverting to Angelus immediately following her first experience with intercourse remains a devastating moment), Buffy’s own sexuality and hyper femininity refreshingly never result in any scripted form of Puritanical, ‘man-dated’ punishment. Eschewing the ‘rules’ of horror, it is in this that Whedon instead celebrates the complexity of his lead as a human being, and not as an object.
Further, wherein the essence of the ‘Final Girl’ archetype is arguably one of reaction (wholesome girl runs from unknown malevolent force), Buffy herself is entirely proactive, choosing instead to dash into the fray/sacrifice her own safety in an effort to protect the blissful ignorance of others who exist within her realm (as exemplified by Buffy’s early-in-the-series proclamation of, “I would love to be upstairs, watching TV or gossiping about boys or… God, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again.”)It is in Whedon’s co-opt of that pathos, generally reserved for fictional characters historically male in gender, that further sets his lead apart.
Extrapolating, commencing in the 1930s during the Golden Age of comic books, superheroes have overwhelmingly been presented as men wealthy, white and powerful, who hold the weight of the world on their shoulders due to a backstory tragic in nature, and the subsequent realization of their own super powers. Whether that be the murder of one’s parents in an urban alleyway (Batman) or their destruction in a celestial explosion (Superman), the result was often an orphaned figure emotionally isolated, who regardless assumed the mantle of ‘savior’ as their own responsibility.
In the world of “BtVS” the same applies (both Buffy’s family is fractured and she is made aware of her calling at an early age), with the primary difference being that the supporting characters who fortify Buffy’s universe aren’t merely one-note damsels in distress (an early hallmark of comics, from Batman’s Julie Madison to Superman’s Lana Lang) but predominantly feminist men (Giles, Xander, Oz, Angel, Spike) and women (Willow, Anya, Faith, Tara) who ultimately look not towards a male figure to lead their way (sorry Giles), but to a plucky cheerleader with a penchant for sarcasm.
A cheerleader who in the end not only reveals herself through trial and fire to be an unapologetic action hero through and through, but one who saves the day (“Again!”), and who in the process, lit the way for young female (and male) viewers the world over.
As Buffy summated in the series finale, surrounded by the The Scoobies and a group of Slayer hopefuls, “So here’s the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power…now? In every generation, one slayer is born… because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. So I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power.”
In my estimation, it’s a statement as topical today as it was in 2003.